Five Keys to Successfully Navigating Change in Spite of a Mental Health Challenge
As they say, “The only thing that never changes is change.” Life is full of changes. Some changes that we make, others make, or life makes for us. Some changes we like; others we do not. Change is unavoidable.
Several years ago, I learned a lot about how to navigate significant changes in my life while keeping my bipolar disorder in order. That season in my life brought a whole list of changes: some of my own doing, some brought on by others, and others that life itself brought about.
Unaware of all of the big changes that were coming our way, my wife and I decided to start finishing our basement prior to all of the changes. In November of that year, we began the project that we’ve been waiting nearly ten years to do. We secured the finances and the contractor in early November, not prepared for the massive changes coming our way in our jobs (we both are on the staff of the church that I pastor). Not only did our job descriptions change (positive changes), but we had physical remodeling of office spaces that also needed to happen before the end of that year. The leaders of our church were also rewriting the by-laws of our congregation during this time. Our work days were consumed with planning and preparing for all the Christmas activities and services. Plus, we were getting ready for hosting Christmas at home for not only our children and their families but also my entire extended family.
Needless to say, I learned a few important keys to navigating a lot of change, while maintaining my emotional health. So I thought I would share with you a few of insights that were critical to navigating the changes successfully (this is by no means an exhaustive list).
- When experiencing a lot of change, keep your world as small as possible. In other words, limit your activities as much as possible. For example, I postponed some things on my calendar that could wait and delegated weekly activities such as my facilitating a Fresh Hope group. I took a 2-month break and had someone else facilitate for me. I knew that if I had too many activities, I would risk losing my wellness. I needed to keep my schedule as simple as possible.
- Know which changes you can reject and which you will have to accept. Sometimes changes come our way that we have no control over, i.e., the loss of a job, death of a spouse, or moving to another city or town. When a change happens that you can’t control, you have to come to terms with it and accept it as out of your control. If the change or changes are things you can control, then you need to do what you can do. And it’s important to know the difference between the two. (From the Serenity Prayer, “the things I can change and the things I cannot change…and the wisdom to know the difference.”)
- All changes, whether negative or positive – including the changes we desire – bring with them some grief. Working through the grief is important. One of the monumental tasks I had to do regarding building changes in our offices was to empty out a “junk room” (which the staff lovingly referred to as my “hoarders room”). This room had all of the junk and boxes of the first years following my very manic episode, forced resignation, and my attempts to “find myself” through hobbies. A lot of “memories of pain” were stored up in that room. I dreaded having to clean it out. Some of the boxes had not been opened in nearly 20 years. I thought about having someone just toss it all out! But I knew there were things worth keeping, so I needed to go through them. With the great help of a close friend, the room was emptied with minimal emotional pain. But I still needed to grieve just a bit.
- Stick to your schedule.It was imperative during this time of significant changes that I stuck with a routine, especially my sleep routine. I made sure that I didn’t mess with my sleep schedule even though it was tempting to rise early in the morning and stay up late to get as much done as possible. Doing that would have most certainly led me either into a manic phase or hypomanic phase.
- Routinely take quiet time – get in touch with what and how you are feeling emotionally, and measure the clarity of your thinking.Each day I knew I had to pay close attention to how I was feeling. I’d ask myself, “Are you feeling a little too wound up? Are your thoughts clear? Are your thoughts racing? Is your thinking foggy?” I’d ask myself a couple of times a day, “How are you doing? What are you feeling? How is your thinking?” I found myself at times becoming overwhelmed and “shutting down”. At those times I would take a few steps back and do some breathing techniques that I’ve learned over the years. And if that didn’t’ work, I’d take a walk, or just do something that required no thinking, until the feelings of being overwhelmed had passed. With all of the changes going on, taking quiet time to pay attention to what was going on within me was imperative!
It’s was a crazy few months, but the changes have now been made, and I’ve adjusted to a new focus on my daily tasks at work. Overall, the changes have been good. But even these positive changes had to be navigated, felt, and worked through emotionally. For the most part, I fared pretty well through the changes. I did have some mornings where I was waking up much earlier than usual, which for me is that is a sign of an elevated mood. So, on those days, I paid even closer attention to what was going on with my thinking and emotions. I always attempted to make sure to get to the gym on those days.
The worst part of experiencing all these changes was that I allowed myself to fall off the “healthy-food-wagon”, and now I’m working hard to get back on it. I had done so well with healthy eating for the six months before the Christmas prior to all of the changes, having lost over sixty pounds (with another fifty to go). And as many as you know, detoxing from sugar and the craving of carbs due to medicine can be so difficult to do!
So, how about you? What are important keys for you in navigating change? What keys for successfully navigating change would you add to this list?